Thursday, February 25, 2016
I recently read a collection of quotes by a German-American Journalist from Baltimore named H. L. Mencken, who wrote in the early part of the last century. I found the collection interesting and decided to use it as a springboard for some thoughts on the ideas they conjure up. I recognize not all the quotes may be exact or may be quoted differently from different sources. But, they are close enough to suffice.
#1) “American’s admire the most daring liars and detest most those who try and tell them the truth.” It is true that we probably wouldn't vote for somebody who told us the truth. Rather, we'll vote for the guy/gal who tells us we can cut taxes, expand our pet programs, and do it all while balancing the budget. I recently heard an interview by a candidate who is high in the polls who said the same thing. He claimed he could represent the interests of all the citizens while cutting govt. spending. Everybody will vote for that, even though it makes no practical sense. He was pointedly asked by the interviewer for some specific details, but failed to offer any. See one of my previous posts on what I would do if I were president.
#2) “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” When you study the writings of many of the men in the constitutional convention you find that they were terrified of giving the vote to the common man. Rather, they wanted it to remain in the hands of the educated, landed gentry. When the common man believes things that don't make sense or votes for somebody based on how well their hair is made up or whether they sweated during a debate, I fear the founding fathers were right to fear. I believe in representative government, but think it can only thrive under the direction of an educated and moral electorate. I also think we ought to take responsibility for the government we have created by whom and what we have voted for. In the end, regardless of how horrible we think it is, a representative government can no more than represent and mirror society as a sum of its sometimes ignorant and immoral whole.
#3) “The press is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.” Both sides of the political debate accuse the oppositely aligned press of being biased and ignorant. They are probably both right. Everything is based on the spin of the message and its sensationalism. When the most prominent thing on the news is the shenanigans of some celebrity or whether a football had the wrong air pressure in it, what does it say of our society, its priorities, and its values? When you find an article which attempts to give a reasoned and fact based representation of multiple sides of a truly important issue, count yourself lucky for handling such a rarity.
#4) “The aim of public education is to put down dissent and originality.” It is a sad truth that education does tend to reward and advance conformity. Facts can trump reason. The ability to regurgitate ideas on standardized tests is more important than critical thinking, cogent analysis, and the ability to clearly and convincingly communicate advanced thought. Our education system should primarily be teaching students how to learn and evaluate—turning facts into wisdom. But, how would you accurately assess that? It is a quandary, but one we shouldn't give up on.
#5) “A judge is a law student who grades his own examination papers.” I feel greatly for somebody who is put in the role of a judge and empowered to so deeply affect the lives of their fellow humans. There is so much room for error and so little oversight to correct excesses, intentional or otherwise. In the end, we are the imperfect passing judgment on the accused sinners on behalf of the damaged. At best we can reward those who care more for those they serve, both victim and accused, than they value their own opinions and rulings.
#6) “A philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. A theologian is the man who finds it.” Lest I raise the hackles of the religious who might read this, know that I too am a believer. However, I also look around me and see so many different beliefs—many held as dearly as my own—and do not wonder how some can scoff and claim it is all made up to opiate the masses. There are thousands of Christian congregations, most of which claim to study and draw their beliefs from the same Bible. Yet, they can interpret the same passages in opposite ways, then claim their interpretation is ultimate truth while consigning those who read it different to an eternal fire. Clearly if there is an ultimate truth to be found, it needs to come from a higher source than the words in a book, whether it be Bible, Qur’an, or Bhagavad Gita (all of which I have read). Even if we feel we have encountered that higher source, we should retain some humility and charity for the beliefs of others—including the skepticism of the non-believers.
#7) “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.” Some of the greatest tyrants in history have burst onto the stage claiming salvation for their respective groups. Hitler preached a renewal of German pride and accomplishment. Lenin and Stalin claimed they were freeing the oppressed masses from the excesses of capitalism--promising bread, land, and peace. We should only seek to serve humanity. There is only one empowered to save them. Reserve a healthy distrust for the person who promises to solve all our problems without little or no pain. Remember the line from The Princess Bride, “Life is pain princess, anybody who tells you different is trying to sell you something.”
#8) “Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.” I have quoted this often referring to first marriages, with second marriages being the triumph of hope over experience, and subsequent marriages as insanity for doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Certainly it is true that romantic attraction, which too many in society label love, must eventually and soon grow into something deeper and less grounded in physical and emotional attraction or it is destined to die quickly away under the heat of reality, leaving the individuals involved to wonder how they could have been so mistaken. Then, they will just as quickly dive into the next infatuation and claim true love at last.
#9) “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Complex problems rarely have clear and simple answers. Politicians try and reduce complex problems to sound bites, then throw over-simplified answers at them. The devil, or angel, is always in the details. We are right to not trust generalized statements such as “close the borders,” “stimulate the economy,” “reduce government,” “address homelessness,” “fight terrorism,” and “support our troops and veterans.” If there aren’t some comprehensive details presented, those phrases mean nothing!
#10) “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution.” There are many who claim that families are falling apart, the sanctity of marriage is disappearing, and that family has been redefined out of existence. I think there is evidence out there to support all those statements. I also think we are missing the mark in terms of an ultimate solution. This isn’t a problem that will be solved through legislation or hatred towards those we disagree with. Rather, I think our emphasis should be on educating and changing the individual expectation about what marriage really means and its realities. Society’s expectations are dangerously skewed and unsupportable—resulting in marriages either ending or disintegrating to relationships of quiet desperation that leave us bitter and cynical. We must change the perception of what a long term marriage means, what it takes to be successful in terms of near heroic sacrifices and selflessness, and how to deal with the myriad of problems that will always come. Societies will only change in the long run when a critical mass of individuals have a change of heart.
#11) “In the battle of the sexes, women fight from a submarine and men from an open raft.” It is certain we often fail to communicate successfully with the opposite sex. It is also true that there are differences in how we think and approach things—although perhaps not as different as some would suggest. These barriers will only be overcome as we follow Covey’s admonition to seek first to understand and then be understood rather than expecting the other person to just get it. But, of course, that takes effort and if they really loved me I wouldn’t have to be so overt. With such an attitude it is a battle that both sexes will lose.
#12) “We value rights less than we do privileges. The average person doesn’t want to be free, they just want to be safe and comfortable.” Our reaction as a society since 9/11 has made this statement a painful truism. We seem unwilling to comprehend that everything we ask government to do to “make us safe” through increased and more intrusive monitoring, suspending the rules of evidence, and allowing arrests without warrants, takes away our individual and societal freedoms. Regardless of what they may have done, holding individuals arrested without warrants and then leaving them in prisons without charges and without trail until they rot, should be an affront to anybody who cares about our constitutional justice system. Add to that torture and other abuse, all in the name of getting information that may increase our security, and we should be ashamed to call ourselves a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. We allow the government more and more access to our most personal information as a supposed deterrent and we gently, carefully, but willingly, give ourselves over to the Big Brother system that Orwell warned us of almost a century ago. We cannot accept and use the methods of tyranny to accomplish the designs of freedom and democracy. To the degree with do, we justify everything the violent extremists perceive in us. If we ignore the abuse, discrimination, or dehumanizing of any individual and take away their due process under law, we ultimately subject ourselves to the possibility of the same treatment when our benevolent protectors turns tyrants.
#13) “An historian is an unsuccessful novelist.” We delude ourselves to some degree when we accept historical interpretation as non-fiction. It has been said that history is written by the winners, or at least those left standing. No historian presents facts and evidence without some interpretation and analysis, even if it is only in what facts and evidence he decides to present. The same historical events can be seen and interpreted from many different perspectives. Was the document of 1776 a declaration of independence from tyranny, or the ungrateful, rebellious treason of citizens? Was Lincoln the great emancipator, or the greatest suspender of individual and state’s rights in the history of our country? Depending on who and when you ask, both answers will be espoused as truth. And, there are historical facts to support both conclusions. I have long felt that if you don’t know enough facts and haven’t considered enough varied perceptions to argue an issue from at least three sides, you don’t have the right to a reasoned opinion. I feel the same way about historical analysis.
#14) “If you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.” What is a good person? How do we identify them? Are we willing to admit the stock we put on labeling people as good those who believe like we do, look like we do, live where we do, and act like we do? Isn’t there some standard that rises above all that and is applicable to all cultures, languages, creeds? If there is, I think some key words would be tolerance, forgiveness, kindness, and charity towards others in both thought and action. Let us all spend time forgiving others and winking at those that might otherwise be passed over.